Making universalism resonate locally

To build support for human rights among the Israeli public, we need to not only address the public's political beliefs and security concerns, but also a much more fundamental critique of the human rights movement as unresponsive to religious beliefs and traditional values. Translation: עברית ,العربية,

The discussion on building a grassroots human rights movement (Ron, Crow and Shannon) resonates within the Israeli human rights community, which over the past few years has begun to develop strategies to engage the mainstream Israeli public. Some of the obstacles we face are those common to the human rights community globally. Others are unique to our particular context.  The term human rights is well-known in Israel. Yet fully half of the Israeli public is quite hostile to the term, which they see as a euphemism for Palestinian rights. This is perhaps not surprising, given our context of a democracy that has maintained a military occupation over the Palestinians for over four decades.

Polling that we have done shows broad familiarity among Israelis with the phrase "human rights," as well as theoretical support for the idea – but much hostility to its application in practice. Thus in a 2004 survey, half of those surveyed said that the Israeli government should do more to respect the rights of its own citizens. However, a much smaller group – 30% - felt the government wasn't doing enough to protect Palestinian human rights – while another third felt the government does too much to respect Palestinian rights. This despite the fact that Israeli government treatment of the Palestinians is much harsher and more restrictive than that of its own citizens.

The limited support for Palestinian human rights has remained fairly constant for over a decade: a third of the population agrees that given our reality, it is justified for an Israeli organization to concentrate on Palestinian human rights, but one third to one half of the population consistently express extremely hostile views toward human rights organizations and Palestinians' rights. Some 15-20% of Israelis express support for an organization like B'Tselem, which is probably the brand name for human rights in Israel. While from abroad 20% support may seem like a small number, Israeli supporters are often pleasantly surprised to learn that we have such a significant constituency; our subjective experience is that our message is much more marginal than this. 

One source of the hostility is that human rights are understood as existing in tension with security concerns of Israelis. Many in the Israeli Jewish public criticize human rights organizations for not showing concern for their rights: either by not adequately addressing terrorist attacks against them or by tying the hands of the security forces in their efforts to prevent such attacks. Indeed, many of the policies under scrutiny for violating Palestinians' human rights are justified as necessary for Israelis' security. Particularly during those periods when deadly attacks by Palestinian militants against Israeli civilians were very frequent, it is not surprising that a majority of Israelis supported policies that promised to keep us safe, even if they harmed Palestinians.

Both elites and the broader public voice the idea that human rights groups are weak on security concerns though, particularly for government officials or rightwing politicians, this may be a cynical strategy to deflect criticism alongside any genuine sense of grievance. 

As in many contexts, in Israel there is a correlation between views on human rights and religion, class and ethnicity, as well as political positioning. Among the Jewish majority, those who voice support for the human rights message in our surveys are disproportionately on the left of the political spectrum, better educated, with at least an average income, families who come from a European background (with the exception of first generation immigrants from the Former Soviet Union), and define themselves as secular or traditional rather than religious.

Of course there are complicated intersections between these various identities, and I cannot address here the historical, political and sociological factors that have influenced the different publics' views on human rights. The relevant question here is: given these factors, can we widen the base of support for human rights in Israel?

Certainly the military occupation and armed conflict is a big obstacle. I do not think we will succeed in mobilizing a majority of Israelis to champion the human rights of Palestinians, seen as the "other" and even the "enemy." But military conflict is not our only obstacle. 

What we have learned so far in our efforts to reach beyond our usual audience is that Israelis don't share our views, not only because of security concerns, and not (only) because some are racist, nationalist, chauvinist, or religious extremists. It is also that the traditional framework of human rights organizations is unappealing. We are seen to be overly legalistic, unresponsive to local concerns, dismissive of traditional values and anti-religion – and in all honesty, I cannot say that this critique is without merit.

To what extent can we remain true to the uncompromisingly universal message of human rights while responding to these concerns? The very name of my organization tries to bridge this gap; B'Tselem is taken from the Biblical book of Genesis, which describes the creation of humankind in the image of God, b'tselem elohim in Hebrew. This is the religious source for the statement in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we are all created equal in dignity and rights. However, B'Tselem did not build on this beginning and develop a language rooted in Jewish religious sources to argue for respect for human rights, but instead relied exclusively on the language of international treaties. 

Advocacy with the policymaking community is always going to be a central strategy for the human rights movement – both advocacy with local policymakers and international advocacy as well (which many in Israel view as traitorous). However, I believe the human rights community can make some strides toward expanding and diversifying our base of support. To do so requires us to leave our comfort zone. 

It is not only a question of designing more attractive packaging of our message; if we are serious about reaching broader audiences, we need to engage in genuine dialogue with them, based on the understanding that we also are open to change. In the hostile context in which Israeli human rights organizations operate, the openness (even vulnerability) required for such dialogue cannot be treated lightly. But to my mind, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.

About the author

Jessica Montell has served since 2001 as Executive Director of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. She has a Masters degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and is a frequent speaker and commentator on human rights, international humanitarian law and counter-terror policies. In 2013, Action on Armed Violence selected her as one of "the 100 Most Influential People in Armed Violence Reduction." Follow her on Twitter @JessicaMontell.

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